On the Isle of Jura

George Orwell's desk on Jura

Three years ago when Howard and I travelled up to the west coast of Scotland and the Isle of Skye, I took Madeleine Bunting's Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey to read on the long train ride north, and found it to be a perfect introduction to the landscape and culture I would soon be immersed in. Bunting's book is lighter in tone and scope than those previously discussed (Philip Marsden's The Summer Isles and David Grange's The Frayed Atlantic Edge), but I don't mean that in a pejorative sense. If her book has more of a travelogue quality, it's nonethess informative, perceptive, and engaging, providing a good overview of an archipelago rich in history and story.

Like Marsden and Grange, Bunting writes about the western islands from an outsider's perspective, following the footsteps of authors who've been drawn to these wild shores for generations. In her chapter on the Isle of Jura, example, she visits Barnhill, the ramshackle farmhouse where George Orwell retreated to write his dystopian classic, Nineteen Eighty-Four. In Orwell's day, Bunting tells us,

"there was no daily postal service, no telephone and no electricity at Barnhill. The nearest shop was a twenty-five mile round trip, the nearest doctor was on Islay. Orwell was delighted: the place was 'extremely unget-at-able' he declared. He had fled the telephone, the requests for journalism and the busy chatter of London life, he explained in letters. Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting His recurrent fear of assassination since his time in Barcelona in 1936-7 abated, although he still kept a gun at hand. But he wanted his friends to visit and gave detailed instructions for the forty-eight-hour journey from London, with train and ferry times. What resulted were some tense ménages with assorted friends and relatives, which [his sister] Avril was left to deal with when Orwell retreated to his room with his typewriter. One visitor, a young student, David Holbrook, reminisced, 'I wanted to talk to him about life, about politics, Spain and that sort of thing, but he was wheezing away about an Arctic tern.'  

"Orwell's letters portray Barnhill as a powerful emotional counterbalance to his pervasive pessimism in those years. After an autumn spent in bed in the damp house in 1947, he was taken to a Lanarkshire sanatorium for treatment [for tuberculosis] and he wrote to a friend, 'Not much use worrying about Palestine or anything else. This stupid war is coming off in about 10-20 years and this country will be blown off the map whatever else happens. The only hope is to have a home with a few animals in some place not worth a bomb. If the show does start and is as bad as one fears, it could be fairly easy to be self-supporting on the island provided one wasn't looted.' His comments owed much to that mid-20th-century British conception of islands, and the Hebrides in particular, as salvific, the last refuge. 'When one considers how things have gone since 1930 or thereabouts, it is not easy to believe in the survival of civilization,' he wrote. The first title he had considered for Nineteen Eighty-Four was The Last Man in Europe. On stormy nights in Barnhill, his sense of foreboding may have led him to think he was writing about himself....

Orwell at Work  photographed by Vernon Richards

Barnhill on the island of Jura

"Jura's remoteness was Orwell's only explanation for his decision to move there. But given his deep love of the English countryside, it was an intriguing choice. There were plenty of remote houses in England where the farming and gardening might have been more productive. Jura was a landscape unlike any other he had lived in, and it enabled him to produce a novel which was quite unlike anything else he had ever written, and at a speed, despite his illness, which he had never managed before.

"Barnhill gave him the vantage point from which to create its opposite in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The character Julia offers the one glimmer of hope in the book; her unabashed love of sex was 'above all what he [Winston] wanted to hear' because it was 'not merely the love of one person but the animal instinct'. Living at Barnhill gave Orwell an experience akin to Julia's 'animal instinct', of a deeply experiential, instinctive world away from abstractions.

"In Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell describes people who can no longer understand freedom or truth because history has been corrupted, repeatedly rewritten in the 'Records Department', and in the process their identity and that of England has been erased. Freedom is no longer imaginable because there is no language to describe it; as the state functionary Syme says, 'Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.' At one point, Orwell's character Winston Smith can no longer remember his parents. He asks himself, 'Did his parents live in England? England was its name, he thought, or Britain.'

Orwell and goat

"Orwell was writing these lines when living amongst a Gaelic community; the neighbouring crofters with whom he shared the tasks of harvesting would never have been allowed to forget their parents, or where they had lived, given the Gaelic emphasis on genealogy and place. Did Jura and its losses -- of language and history -- creep into the background texture of Nineteen Eighty-Four, providing small details in the vision of how identity -- and thus freedom -- were lost?

"Literary critics of Orwell's work tend to regard Jura as incidental, no more than a backdrop, and their focus has been on Orwell, the man. Their references to Jura have often been simply comments on its remoteness. But Orwell had an acute sense of place; he understood how it expressed history and generated identity. He used vivid evocations of both city and countryside to express his most important political ideas in books such as Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Coming Up for Air, and Down and Out in Paris and London. This Atlantic edge of Britain has been a battleground for different interpretations of freedom, and how history and identity create the conditions for them, as I was to discover several times on my journeys. What Orwell found on Jura were reminders of those freedoms which had been lost in urban Britain, and which sustained and inspired him."

George Orwell at Barnhill.

Bunting's book is full of vivid snapshots like this of people, places and stories throughout the Hebrides. She's a fine raconteur and a good traveling companion for readers who prefer some gentle island-hopping to vigorous journeys by sailboat or kayak, or as a follow-up to such epic adventures.

For more on Orwell and other writers on islands, follow the links in this previous post.

Small Isles Bay  Jura  photograph by William Herron

Words: The passage above is from Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting (Granta Books, 2016). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: George Orwell on the Isle of Jura in the 1940s.


One more post for the feathered ones

Bird Girls by Terri Winding

Bird Mother by Terri Windling
Why I Need the Birds
by Lisel Mueller (1924-2020)

When I hear them call
in the morning, before
I am quite awake,
my bed is already traveling
the daily rainbow,
the arc toward evening;
and the birds, leading
their own discreet lives
of hunger and watchfulness,
are with me all the way,
always a little ahead of me
in the long-practiced manner
of unobtrusive guides.

By the time I arrive at evening,
they have just settled down to rest;
already invisible, they are turning
into the dreamwork of trees;
and all of us together --
myself and the purple finches,
the rusty blackbirds,
the ruby cardinals,
and the white-throated sparrows
with their liquid voices —
ride the dark curve of the earth
toward daylight, which they announce
from their high lookouts
before dawn has quite broken for me.

   

"Why I Need the Birds" is from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems by Lisel Mueller, winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Having long been one of my favourite poets, I was saddened to learn of Ms. Mueller's death earlier this year, at age 96. The New York Times obituary noted that her "elegant work drew on nature, her experiences as a parent, folklore, and history, including her own flight from Nazi Germany as a teenager." I particularly recommend her folklore poems ("Why We Tell Stories," "Reading the Brothers Grimm to Jenny," etc.), but the full range of her work is quietly devastating in its power.

Some years ago I plucked up the courage to write for permission to reprint one of her poems in my Armless Maiden anthology (raising money for at-risk children) -- and she responded by writing and donating a beautiful new poem instead. Her kindness will never be forgotten. May her memory be a blessing.

Bird Sisters by Terri Windling

Lisel Muller photographed by Lucy Mueller

Words: Alive Together: New and Selected Poems was published by Louisiana State University Press, 1996; all rights reserved by the author's estate. Pictures: The paintings and drawing above are by me today. All rights reserved.


Starfall

Starfall by Flora McLachlan

My apologies, once again, for disruptions to Myth & Moor's publishing schedule -- due first to the usual heath issues, and more recently to the sudden death of my youngest brother. He died under distressing circumstances, so I haven't known quite what to say about it. I'll let poetry speak for me instead. Keith was loved by many, and left us too soon. I wish you peace, Little Bro.

Brother and Sister by John B. GruelleVert
by Catherine Staples

As in green, vert, a royal demesne     
stocked with deer. Invert as in tipped
as a snow globe, going nowhere in circles
but not lost, not bereft as the wood
without deer, waiting for the white antlered
buck, or his does, or any slim yearling
to step along the berm, return. Vertigo
as in whirling round, swimming in the head,
unanchored by the long spring,
the horse cantering, the meadow dropping
like an elevator into the earth, falling
like Persephone through a crevice, a swiveling
crack, a loose screw, a lost way. Disordered
White-tail deer, Texasas in death lasts, my brother’s not coming back.
The spin of it continuous as in looking down
from height, and then it stops, the spinning
just slows, a chariot wheel stilled in grass.
The world is the same, but it isn’t. The tipped
views of trees when hanging from your knees.
The deer in twos and threes watching.


Roe Buck

The Sleeping Heart of Winter by Catherine Hyde

Pictures: "Starfall" by Flora McLachlan, an illustration for the fairy tale "Brother & Sister" by Johnny B. Gruelle (1880-1938), two white-tailed deer, a roe buck, and "The Sleeping Heart of Winter" by Catherine Hyde.

Words: The poem first appeared in Poetry magazine (October 2015); all rights reserved by the author.


Telling Our Stories: in honour of Toni Morrison, 1931-2019

Briar Rose (collage) by T Windling

“I believe in all human societies there is a desire to love and be loved, to experience the full fierceness of human emotion, and to make a measure of the sacred part of one's life. Wherever I've traveled -- Kenya, Chile, Australia, Japan -- I've found the most dependable way to preserve these possibilities is to be reminded of them in stories. Stories do not give instruction, they do not explain how to love a companion or how to find God. They offer, instead, patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives."  

- Barry Lopez (About This Life)

"I come from a long line of tellers: mesemondok, old Hungarian women who tell while sitting on wooden chairs with their plastic pocketbooks on their laps, their knees apart, their skirts touching the ground...and cuentistas, old Latina women who stand, robust of breast, hips wide, and cry out the story ranchera style. Both clans storytell in the plain voice of women who have lived blood and babies, bread and bones. For them, story is a medicine which strengthens and arights the individual and the community."  

- Clarissa Pinkola Estés (Women Who Run With the Wolves)

Donkeyskin (collage) by T Windling

"Make up a story.

"Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created. We will not blame you if your reach exceeds your grasp; if love so ignites your words they go down in flames and nothing is left but their scald. Or if, with the reticence of a surgeon's hands, your words suture only the places where blood might flow. We know you can never do it properly -- once and for all. Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try. For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don't tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief's wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear's caul."

- Toni Morrison (Nobel Prize lecture, 1993)

In the Meadow (collage) by T Windling


In memorium

Merwin's palm forest

I was so sorry to learn of the death of poet, playwright, and translator W.S. Merwin, who work has meant a good deal to me over years. At 91 years old, he had a long, good life, but the world will be a lesser place without him.

Born the son of a minister in 1927, Merwin was raised (like me) in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He then studied at Princeton on a scholarship, travelled through Europe developing his remarkable facility for languages, and lived on the island of Majorca where he tutored Robert Graves' son. In subsequent years, Merwin lived in Boston, New York, London, and rural France before finally settling down in Haiku, Hawaii with his beloved wife, Paula. It was there that he began his other life's work: the slow restoration of a palm forest on nineteen acres of Hawaiian coastline.

William Stanley Merwin

In a lovely essay for The Kenyon Review, Merwin wrote about the first sight of his land, despoiled by years of sugar cane production:

"It was not hard to see that the soil was poor. If I had known to look for them, I would have been able to see the up-and-down corduroy ridges in the dry, waving grass across the valley, a testament of the most recent land abuse. But the condition of the soil did not, in itself, daunt me. I had long dreamed of having a chance, one day, to try to restore a bit of the earth’s surface that had been abused by human 'improvement.' I loved the wind-swept ridge, empty of the sounds of machines, just as it was, with its tawny, dry grass waving in the wind of late summer. The rough road behind me, and the one along the top of the ridge on the other side of the valley, led down to end at the sea cliff a quarter of a mile away. I had not yet seen that the road on which I had come ended on a headland, overlooking a large bay, with a shore of boulders and a hill behind that on which the second-largest heiau (Hawaiian temple platform and compound) in the islands, wholly unexcavated, was hidden under mango trees.

Bird of Paradise in Merwin's palm forest

"I was captivated by the sense of distance along the coast. From in front of the cabin there was only one other building to be seen: a barn-red house halfway down the opposite slope. Out beyond the sea cliffs the ocean extended without a break all the way to Alaska. That was the destination, every spring, of the migrating plovers that flashed above me far ahead of their call-notes. From the cabin on that first day, I followed the ghost of a path down through the waist-high grass. It curved to the left and then swung to lead down under the mango trees. When I stepped into their shade, I seemed at once to be in another world. The sound of the wind was suddenly muted and far away. The air was cooler, and from somewhere I could not see among the trees I was startled to hear the voice of a thrush singing, at that hour of the day. It was the omao, known as the 'Hawaiian thrush,' though, in fact, it was a foreigner, just as I was. It was also called, more accurately, the Chinese thrush, and also the Laughing thrush. There are few members of the thrush family, whatever their species, that are not great singers (the American robin is a notable exception) and the omao, like the nightingale, never repeats itself but sings variations from an inexhaustible source.

"I stood still and listened, looking along the valley in the shade of the mango trees as the thrush went on singing, and then I stepped down the slope and walked over to the rocky stream bed itself. I stood there hearing the thrush and wanting to stay."

Omao (Hawaiian thrush)

The video above is a trailer for the film Even Though the World is Burning, about Merwin's life, poetry, and work on the land. It's a beautiful film, and I highly recommend it.

(You can purchase a copy through The Merwin Conservancy here. )

W.S. Merwin

Merwin's palm forest